Don't be distracted by the Mideast conflict

WASHINGTON — Eleven years ago, after its swift and crushing victory over Iraq, the United States bestrode the Middle East like a colossus. Having demonstrated the power of American arms and American resolve, America assumed a role of dominance in the region not seen since the better days of the Ottoman Empire.

The question was: What to do with this newfound political capital? The first Bush administration decided to do a strategic pivot and spend that capital on resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute, convening the Madrid peace conference. It turned out to be a dead end.

Meanwhile, the moment slipped away. Saddam survived, rearmed, defeated the inspections regime, and is now back building weapons of mass destruction.

I offer this history not to criticize. We did not know then what we know now: That had the political capital gained in the Gulf War not been dissipated in the quicksand of the Arab-Israeli conflict but concentrated on bringing down Saddam, the region would have been changed immeasurably for the better.

Iraq might have served as the first example of an Arab democracy, spreading its influence and planting seeds in neighboring dictatorships. Its huge oil reserves could have offset Saudi dominance as OPEC's swing producer and helped the United States by increasing production to reduce prices. It might have contributed to resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute, allying itself with the moderate Jordanians, for example, instead of with the most radical anti-Western elements of the region and serving as paymaster for suicide bombers.

Why is this history relevant? Because 11 years later we are back to the same question. We have scored another spectacular victory in the region: Afghanistan.

The rout of the Taliban and al-Qaida changed the psychological dynamic of the entire region. The government of Yemen, for example, is cooperating with us in the fight against al-Qaida. Not because its leaders reread the Federalist Papers and were moved. But because, like others in the region, they trembled at the demonstration of American reach and American will in Afghanistan.

We are in danger now, however, of dissipating that capital once again in the Arab-Israeli dispute. To be fair, the administration never intended to plunge into it, but was overtaken by events — the horrific escalation of suicide bombings in Israel leading to Israel's decisive counterattack. The administration's reaction to these events, however, threatens to take us into a cul-de-sac — and away from our first priority, the American war on terrorism.

The Israeli-Palestinian distraction is disabling in two respects. First, it muddies the very principles of the Bush Doctrine. It is hard to declare an uncompromising, unwavering war on "terrorists and those who harbor them," while insisting that Israelis must pull back from pursuing Palestinian suicide bombers and negotiate with those who harbor and support them.

Second, the detour into the morass of Arab-Israeli diplomacy risks diverting America's diplomatic, political and military energies from our supreme national objective: fighting anti-American terror.

Time is running short. Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. He is working on nuclear weapons. And he has every incentive to pass them on to terrorists who will use them against us. We cannot hold the self-defense of the United States hostage to the solving of a century-old regional conflict.

This idea that we cannot fight Iraq without a consensus of Arab states behind us is absurd. We need two countries, Kuwait in the south and Turkey in the north. We're already moving our command-and-control out of Saudi Arabia into Qatar. What exactly was Egypt's contribution to victory in the Gulf War? Or perhaps we need those crack Syrian troops who watched us take Kuwait City.

There is nothing wrong with encouraging Arab-Israeli negotiations. We can talk and chew gum at the same time. But we should stick to talk. The idea, floated by Zbigniew Brzezinski and being bruited in the State Department, of engaging American troops in Palestine to enforce a solution and thus, of necessity, control terror is quite insane. Nor should the president be risking his own unprecedented prestige by making demands of the Arab states, Palestinians and Israelis that we have no expectation of seeing fulfilled.

Above all, we must not be diverted from our supreme national objective: defeating and destroying those who did Sept. 11 and those planning the next Sept. 11.

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